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Luger Anne Abernathy made history in Salt Lake City with a performance that rewarded determination, endurance and fitness more than outright ability. She was never likely to win a medal, and nor did she expect to. Abernathy had pushed the limits simply by reaching these Games, and competing at the top level.
She represented the United States Virgin Islands, and was her tiny country’s best-known winter athlete, but her fame spread far beyond its borders.
Her involvement in Salt Lake City was remarkable for a number of reasons. For one thing, she was competing at her fifth consecutive Winter Games. Secondly, she was now 48 years old, having made her Olympic debut at the age of 34, and was destined to become the oldest competitor in the history of the Winter Games.
But what was even more extraordinary was that she had suffered a truly serious injury the previous year that just about everyone, except Abernathy herself, thought would rule her out of competing in Salt Lake City.
The accident happened while taking part in a World Cup race in Altenberg (GER), in 2001. Abernathy, who was known to many of her rivals as “Grandma Luge”, crashed heavily and suffered a brain injury. To help her recover, she turned to an unlikely form of therapy that involved playing a video game using brainwaves to control the flight of a rocket. It might sound unusual, but in fact it helped Abernathy to regain her fitness in time to return to competition and qualify for the Games.
She completed four solid runs and finished in 26th place, an achievement that was hailed by her fellow athletes. Four years later, “Grandma Luge” qualified for Turin 2006, to become the first woman over the age of 50 to earn a place at the Winter Games. Unfortunately, she broke her wrist in a practice run and could not compete.
Abernathy retired from luge shortly after, but has since turned her attention to archery, and is now hoping to qualify for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio.